It Takes A Village
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble brings an ancient Indian dance form to Monterey.
Thursday, March 9, 2000
In southern India, about 35 kilometers from the bustling city of Bangalore, heavy with traffic, sounds and smells, sits a 10-acre retreat dedicated to one simple vision: the preservation of a traditional Indian dance form.
Protima Gauri Bedi, a legendary classical Indian dancer who died recently, had long been concerned about the rapid decline of India''s rich tradition of dance. She worried that without preservationist efforts, the country would be left with a generation deprived of great teachers and quality dancers. Ten years ago she built Nrityagram, a Sanskrit word meaning "dance village." She explained its goals thus: "My vision of an idyllic dance village was peopled with idealistic, hardworking, extremely talented and dedicated young dancers."
The dancers, who are all girls, live an almost monastic existence, in near isolation. For seven years, they live in traditional Guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition), where the students care for their teachers in return for knowledge. The girls are taught Indian mythology, including the ancient epics, Sanskrit poetry, yoga, meditation, mime, two martial arts (Aikido and Kalarippayat), and of course, the dance.
Odissi is a soft, lyrical dance, depicting the essential philosophies of the most popular Hindu deities. Said to date back to the temples of Orissa in the 2nd century BC, Odissi is perhaps the oldest known dance form. It is curvaceous and sensual, dividing the body into three principle parts: head, bust and torso. It involves rapid foot rhythms, head movements and intricate facial expressions, decorated with wrist-flicks and side glances.
Monterey residents Srirupa Sen and Annette Alvarez recently spent three months at the dance village. They were so moved that they returned home, traded in their previous careers, and decided to devote their energies to promoting Nrityagram, founding Nrityagram West and becoming its press agents.
The Nrityagram dance ensemble now does an annual spring tour, performing in major cities. Next Wednesday they will dance in Monterey. The New York Times called their 1996 debut show in New York, "one of the most luminous dance events of the year." The reviewer went on to write, "They performed with a burnished grace...each member of the troupe distinguished herself as a dancer of inspiring gifts."
Sen describes Odissi as a form of worship for the dancer; "Odissi is about love and devotion to God, based on a devotion to Lord Krishna." Through the ages it has served not only a religious function, but allows the dancer to act as a narrator, a transmitter of Indian folklore and mythology. While she is dancing, the dancer is on a journey to "ultimate fulfillment," and tries to carry the audience with her. Alvarez says, "That special journey is also an aesthetic one for the audience."
The popularization of Odissi that Bedi dreamed about seems now to be taking place throughout India''s dance community. Kelucharan Mahapatara, one of the first Indians to revive the Odissi dance form in modern years, ended up building his own dance academy after the Indian government refused his request for land. Recently an Odissi course was held in San Diego and last year three Odissi dancers, spotted performing at Rath Yatra celebrations at Venice Beach, Calif., were invited to the MTV awards to dance with Madonna when she performed her song, "Shanti/Ashtangi."
Sen and Alvarez say they are fortunate to be able to bring this cultural experience to parts of the world that would never ordinarily get to see what they describe as a humanitarian mission using the universal language of dance. "With it you can transcend cultural gaps," comments Alvarez. "It can become a valuable resource for schools and our youth."
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble of India performs Wednesday at 7:30pm in the Steinbeck Forum at the Monterey Conference Center. For tickets call Nrityagram West at 648-0719. For a dinner and show package with Indian Summer restaurant in Monterey, call the restaurant at 372-4744. Tickets are also available at the Thunderbird Bookstore in Carmel and Bay Books in Monterey. The public is invited to a cast party after the performance.